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James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water is off to a strong start in China despite significant uncertainty surrounding the public health situation in the country.
As of 12 p.m., local time Friday, the film had earned $15.2 million (RMB106 million), including Thursday night previews, according to regional box office consultancy Artisan Gateway. The firm currently forecasts Avatar 2 to finish the weekend with an opening haul of $119 million to $128 million (RMB830 million to RMB 890 million).
China’s largest ticketing app, Maoyan, meanwhile, is projecting The Way of Water to conclude its local run with $360 million (RMB 2.51 billion), which would make it Hollywood’s biggest movie in the country this year by far (more than double Jurassic World: Dominion‘s $157 million China haul) and the third-biggest U.S. title of all time in China. But even in the best of times, Maoyan’s full-run forecasts — a projection that leverages early sales rates, users’ ratings and the performance trajectories of past titles — tend to be subject to significant revision during the first days of release. And Avatar 2‘s earnings prospects are especially hard to gauge thanks to the uncertainties surrounding the widespread COVID-19 outbreaks currently sweeping China’s major cities. Artisan Gateway is forecasting a wide range for Avatar 2‘s career total — $315 million to $415 million (RMB 2.2 billion to RMB 2.9 billion) — reflecting the unpredictability of the moment.
Last week, China announced abrupt changes to its national health response, lifting nearly all of the strict “COVID zero” restrictions that had been in place since the early days of the pandemic. Most testing requirements were eliminated and the proof-of-health QR code that had been mandatory to enter most public spaces was scrapped. The sudden policy pivot came in response to growing social unrest over life under endless lockdowns, as well as rising infection rates in many Chinese cities, which some public health experts already believed had made “COVID zero” unsustainable.
On the face of it, China’s sudden freedoms of social movement would seem a boon to theatrical moviegoing. Approximately 75 percent of Chinese cinemas are in operation this weekend, compared to less than 50 percent as recently as two weeks ago, according to Artisan Gateway’s estimates. But a surge in COVID-19 infection rates has swiftly followed the relaxation, causing widespread worry and a pattern of voluntary self-isolation among the Chinese public. With testing mostly suspended, it’s now impossible to get reliable data on just how elevated China’s infection rates have become, but anecdotal evidence in Beijing — reports of strained hospitals, businesses hampered by large numbers of absent staff and mostly empty streets — suggests a potentially enormous outbreak underway.
But if there’s anything that can lure a wary Chinese public back into communal spaces, perhaps it’s Avatar 2. Among Chinese millennials, few titles are as stirringly nostalgic as the first Avatar. The movie was among the initial wave of Hollywood blockbusters to descend upon the country as it was entering its high-growth box office boom era of the late aughts — and Avatar became the biggest sensation of them all. The first film topped out at $202.6 million, an astonishing sum in 2010, when China was home to just 5,690 movie screens (today, there are over 82,000). It took three years and the construction of thousands more cinemas for Avatar‘s China record to fall (to Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West, which brought in $215 million in 2013). And when the original Avatar was rereleased in China in March 2021 — part of a bid by regulators to boost sales during a pandemic fallow period for both Chinese and Hollywood releases — it earned a healthy $58 million, the fourth most of any U.S. movie that year.
How the word of mouth around The Way of Water interacts with audience hesitation will determine its ultimate fate in China — and perhaps even how far the sequel climbs into the worldwide record books.
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